Last night I went to a party in which almost everybody had brought remote-controlled robotic insects. The party was at the Marchmont apartment of my friend Anna. Most of the partygoers were computer science students, and I gather that it is quite ordinary to find a motorized scorpion or a prosthetic bumblebee at large in the homes of these people. Arriving at the party, I felt somewhat uncomfortable and excluded because I had brought no robotic date of my own. Anna’s living room was filled with a wheezy clanking, the discordant rhythms of hundreds of meccano gears and pistons.
A mechanical louse was climbing up a curtain, dementedly set on bumping itself into the ceiling. It duly fell, and lay sprawling on its back. I later realised that the student “controlling” this robot had drunkenly mistaken it for that of somebody else, and he was bewildered by the sight of what he had assumed was his louse beginning to very unsteadily mix a gin and tonic in defiance of his remote control. A robotic earwig was returning from the kitchen with a tube of Pringles in each pincer, whilst a motorized cockroach was absorbed in completing some sort of salsa dance. A spider approached – seemingly with the intention of joining the dance – but its batteries failed and it abruptly toppled over.
There was something arresting and incredibly uncanny to these mechanised insects. As they strutted and flipped and jived, my soul wobbled like a jelly, and I sought the comforts of vodka to steady myself, as one flees from a hard day to a woman’s lap. Tearing my gaze from the insects warring around the drinks cabinet, I recognised two familiar faces: my editor James and his friend Pablo. James waved at me. I was glad to see that he was not fiddling with a remote control, and I rather hoped that he would say something cutting about these computer scientists and their infernal machines. Pablo is a very splendid, very surreal Spaniard from La Mancha. He had picked up a robotic cockroach and he was cradling it as if it was a baby, much to the annoyance of its owner who was impotently waving her remote control at him from across the room.
Moving towards James and Pablo, I stepped on something hard and there was a rather awful crack.
“Hey pal!” A student shot to his feet. “You should look where you’re fucking going!”
I took a step backward. The insect at my feet was going round and round in appalling circles, dragging a tangle of circuitry, its gears gnashing and screeching helplessly.
The student was incredulous. “That cost four thousand pounds!”
“Zbigniew!” James called me quickly from across the room.
The student squared up to me, as stark as a naked warrior, his words as firm as granite but with a little baby’s voice quivering inside them. “I want you to pay me now. I don’t know who you are, but you can just give me my fucking money now.”
My attention was distracted. Anna was attempting to prevent a fat man with a ponytail from launching a robotic moth, which was in reality a small remote-controlled aircraft and totally unsuitable for indoors. The man was drunk and oblivious to Anna’s protests. I think that most of the room ducked to their knees as the moth shot unexpectedly into the air and bashed into a wall. The glass fell out of the windows and books slopped from the shelves.
Anna shrieked. The man was intending to launch his moth again. Some of the students were retreating from a sudden, violent smell of petrol.
I remembered the owner of the broken robot too late. He slammed me against the wall and punched me twice in the face. A bit quicker now, I grabbed both his fists and bore down on him. We rather absurdly veered directly through the party with hands locked, like two mad ballroom dancers, and we crashed into the television, knocking it over. I was the first to my feet, but I then felt an unexpected weight on my back. I sank to my knees, the pain wobbling supremely above me.
“Ah!” I cried. The pain was like icy water and I was frozen stuck, unable to move.
I was aware that the whole party was now regarding me with horror. The robotic earwig perched on my back had ripped out a chunk of my flesh and it was flourishing it like a tambourine.
I tried to extract the earwig from my back with both my hands, but this left my head suddenly clear. The owner of the broken robot was now repeatedly punching me in the face. Behind me, the robotic moth had bashed into the wall for a second time and flakes of plaster were falling from the ceiling.
Two woodlice and a centipede had taken my side and they had together managed to pull down the trousers of the student who was punching me. Several of the partygoers cheered. I found my hands full of earwig and I brought the machine down crack on the student’s head. My face was sprayed with bloody foam from his nose and mouth.
An arm swung into the fight and hauled me out.
“Eh!” Pablo cheered at me, as if he had netted a prize trout.
“I want everybody to leave,” Anna announced. When the moth had fallen to the floor for a second time, she had, with a violence quite uncharacteristic of her, burst in and finished it off with a cricket bat.
“Even me?” I blurted out.
Anna ignored me. She marched over to the door and flung it wide open. “Leave!” she demanded.
The students retrieved their insects. Most of them were despairing of chinks and torn wires, and some were talking loudly of lawsuits.
Outside, I felt the size and depth of the wet hole in my back. James had stolen a bottle of rum from the party, but he was whining because he had forgotten to pocket any mixer. I felt bad because I was certain that up in her flat, Anna would now be crying. I wanted to get one of the insects and break it, but most of the students had dispersed and soon we were the only partygoers left in the street.